Smith Place still exists in Long Beach, California. You drive there and you see they put a park at what in our time was a dead-end street lumber yard. It was a block that would mold my sisters, brother, and me for the rest of our lives. Smith Place sat at the rolling rock resting place at the bottom of Signal Hill, with its hammering oil derricks chugging oil from the still fertile Southern California oil fields that lined the coast and went up into the low hills.
There are places where poor folk and unwanteds live. Not necessarily a homogenized ghetto, but a landing where families with few dollars could share three rooms and try to make a home. A place that you can rise from or stay mired in, treading water until it is your time to depart this earth. Smith Place was such a place, but in 1965 Smith Place was also like Mars to me.
In El Paso, Texas, where we came to Smith Place from, I lived near family and cousins and people with brown skin like mine. I knew white people there, but I think I only saw Black people on the television screen. Smith Place, on the other hand, was made up of Black Creole, interracial, lesbian, gay, and white Arkie folk, so to say I was on another planet was the only way a seven-year-old Mexican boy could describe the things and people he saw.
I did not know the true import of the place until I was older. One thing I did come to know quickly about Smith Place is that each family had their story, and each could live in peace for the time they chose to stay or so I thought.
The adults for the most part got along. Though you could sense some tension, the grown-ups never really let the children know about what they grumbled about. And as kids we did not see the distinctions that other saw, we were just children going through childish times. At least that is how I saw it until the day that Mavis did not see it that way.
Mavis was the second youngest in a family of eight, not including the mother and father, which if you did, would make it a family of ten. She was a tough kid. She could punch so hard she could knock the wind out of you. I always wanted to be on Mavis’ team whenever we played games, because I needed the protection of the puncher and did want to be the punched.
She could be mean. Tell kids that their father was a drunk and that the two ladies that lived together sometimes kissed at night. The interracial couple counseled me to stay away from Mavis, because they thought she was evil and wicked, their exact words. But I could not stay away from her, because mean as she was, she could also create adventures that were criminal to some degree and crazily fun. Like a moth to flame I was attracted to Mavis.
One week she told me she had a plan for us to break into the house where the two well-dressed men lived, because she wanted to confirm what she had seen from the window last Saturday night. She needed to break in into their three-room house and go through their closet because she was sure that she saw them dancing and one was wearing a dress. I told her she was crazy and that I was not going to help her. I walked away and I was glad I did, but I would soon learn how information can sometimes just hurt someone so much that you wished you could unhear what you heard and take the hurt it causes and bury it in dirt.
The next Sunday Mavis came looking for me. She yelled for me to meet her in our backyard. We went to the area where a tree could obscure us from others. She reached down and pulled out a dress. See, I told you. I went to the closet and found it. And there were other dresses too. That man dresses like a woman. And that is when she outed them to me, though at the time I did not know what a gay man was or anything like that. She tried to explain it to me. She made it sound sinister, but it did not make sense to me. The men were the kindest people you would ever want to meet. And what did it matter if one of them wore a dress? I saw comedians on television who wore dresses all the time, so I did not understand why Mavis was making such a big deal.
I could not understand how she broke into someone’s house just to look for a dress, and now she wanted me to break in again to put the dress back. I did not want to break in with her, but she then said we would be like the characters on the television show we watched called It Takes a Thief. We suddenly became characters with a plan that we carried out, making sure not to be caught. I agreed to be part of the plan, even looking forward to it.
Both the men were gone, so this was the perfect time to break-in. Mavis went to the kitchen window and hitched up the window enough to squeeze her slender body in. She went in and let me in through the back door. And I just walked in. Just like our slick and stealth characters were expected to do.
Though the idea felt great when we were outside, I felt dirty as I walked in. Here I was an altar boy at the local catholic church, and I knew every step I took was a sin. Mavis motioned me into the bedroom and opened the closet and showed me the other dresses. She even took them down to see if they would fit her and despite our ugly acts, Mavis, slender and fawn like, looked beautiful in the shuttered hazy sun light that was bleeding through the sheer curtains that lined the bedroom. As she draped the dresses against her shiny cocoa-buttered skin I felt the erotic attraction one feels when danger, sin, and sensuous pleasure mix to create something that drives one to both love and hate themselves. Children can be introduced to the adult world too early and my fleeting moments in the men’s bungalow were a proof of that.
Mavis continued to play dress-up, looking at herself in the mirror, asking me if I thought she was pretty, and dancing around with an imaginary partner as if I was not there. The reverie was cut short because we heard a car drive up. I panicked and ran out the back door and raced to my backyard next door. Mavis also dashed out, throwing the dress on the chair, and not realizing she had left the kitchen window opened, ensuring someone would be caught.
That night the men went door-to-door asking our neighbors and even my parents whether they had seen anyone suspicious around their home. It was clear no one had seen us, and everyone said they had not seen anyone. The men were asked if anything was missing. They said things looked like they had been moved but nothing was missing. They just wanted everyone to know of the break-in, so they would not feel the fear they felt and could take precautions against it happening to them.
I saw Mavis on the block and as evening redden skies were turning into night she gave me a look that said: you better not say a word or else.
One of the men, the one that Mavis said wore the dress, saw me hanging out on our front porch. He came over. I know you are a good boy. I know you are honest. Do you know who did this?
Lying would never come easy to me. But that day I went into the sinner character that I played the day we broke in. I said: I did not see anyone. I did not see anything. I am sorry they broke into your house. The man looked at me pensively and I thought he was going to call out my deceit, but instead he just said: Don’t stop being a good boy. Can you promise me that? Me to him: Yes, sir I can. I will be a good boy.
And just like that I learned to lie, maintain a lie, and found that sin does not bring a lightning bolt upon you but rather nestles a cancer into your soul that one day you will painfully have to dig out. At that moment the cancer did not fester and instead felt like the fleeting victory that subterfuge brings.
The cancer was evident in Mavis after that day. She got meaner and threatened me if I were ever to tell. I told her I would never tell. I also told her that I thought she looked pretty when she held the dress up to her body. Mavis to me: Don’t you ever tell me I’m pretty! Don’t you ever do that! I am an ugly girl. I know that!
Things got even worse. Some months passed and I thought this sinning episode was behind us, but I was wrong in the worst way.
Billy, freckled faced, orange surfer disheveled haired, eight-years-old, and with the kind of disposition one finds in children raised in safety, came to visit one day.
His father, the man that did not wear the dress, brought him over to our house to meet us. I said hello but I could not take my eyes off the new skateboard he held in his hands. It was painted to resemble a moving blue streak that fit exactly with the silver metal wheels that propelled this machine we had heard about but had not seen.
As his father spoke to my mother, I could make out whispers of words like divorce, visiting, mother lives in Lakewood, can your son be his friend? My mother understood enough English to say yes, of course. My mother then told me that I would be Billy’s friend and that I was to show him the neighborhood and help him play with the other kids. She said all this in Spanish, with the final task and consequence made clear: make him feel at home or you will see the back side of my hand.
Billy to me: your mother does not speak English, does she? Do you speak Spanish too? I only speak English. Could you teach me some Spanish words? This place is so different from where I live. My mom and dad do not live together, but my dad visits me a lot. This is the first time he has let me visit him here. I am supposed to spend the night, but mom said if I feel uncomfortable or scared, I can come home tonight. I do not think she wants me to like it here. I want to like it like it because I want to see my dad more. So how do you like this skateboard?
Billy liked to talk. I would love talking later in my life but at that point words only caused me trouble, so I listened more than spoke. Billy talked a lot, but I enjoyed listening to him talk, because he did not think about what he was going to say like someone allowed to say what he felt at any time. Nothing like our house where the chatter of five kids drove all of us crazy at times.
He knew how to use the skateboard well. Probably had smooth sidewalks where he learned, because even he was having trouble staying up on the bumpy crumbling hard concrete that lined our street. I gave it a go but fell too hard, too often to think it any fun, so I watched Billy ride and listened to him talk the whole time.
I liked being with Billy. He was fun in a care-free way. I had friends at school, but few ever came to our neighborhood. I would visit the houses of friends and their parents were always kind, taking us to movies or buying us burgers, but only once did a school friend come to Smith Place. The friend never came back. I knew that would happen because as his mother dropped him off, she looked worried as my friend assured her everything would be okay.
Having a friend like Billy was a change from the bullying reality of the neighborhood. I felt safe with him. In the short time we knew each other we laughed, chased each other, walked with arms wrapped around each other’s shoulder as if we were lifelong pals.
All this would change within hours. After we had lunch, Billy and I were sitting on the porch when Mavis came up to us. She looked surly and ready for a fight. I had seen this Mavis before; she would insult and try to shame you; get you to admit something that she would then tell the neighborhood; have you in her grasp to toy with you, hoping to see you cry. She had done this to me and she did to others. No one went looking for Mavis. She always went looking for someone to tease until they cried and then she would walk away with a superior air of having conquered another child as if she were hunting small game.
Mavis to Billy: What you got there? Let me see that thing.
Billy: that’s my skateboard. Give it back.
Mavis: I’ll give it back when I’m ready you dotted red haired freak. You are ugly. Anyone ever told you that? I bet they have. Who are you? What are you doing in this neighborhood? I am going to take this skateboard. It’s mine now.
Billy: No, it’s mine. Give it back.
At this point, Mavis jumped on the skateboard and tried to ride it. The speed and timing of her jumping on the skateboard caused the skateboard to shoot out from underneath her and she fell flat on her back. By that time other kids around the block had come out and when they saw her fall, everyone started laughing and making fun of her. She gave chase and tried to grab one a kid to start hitting them, a warning to everyone else of what was coming if they kept laughing at her. But she could not reach any of them. Only Billy and I remained.
She then did something that stopped us in our tracks. Words to a child are daggers or diamonds. If words are used to hurt, they hurt a child more. If words are meant to soothe, they are like a beautiful diamond that one never forgets seeing the reflecting light. Mavis did not know diamonds. She only knew daggers.
She ran right up to Billy, looking like she was going to slap him, but instead yelled for everyone to hear: your Daddy kisses men, and he dances with men who wear dresses. Your Daddy is a fairy, so you are fairy too!
There is a silence that causes kids to hear something, pause and then run away while the silence floats paused as if future time has come to claim as many as it can before the true import of the words hits present time and starts to hurt. The other kids had already scattered but I was frozen next to Billy and could not leave him there to endure this by himself.
Mavis started yelling at the tops of her lungs. Mavis to the neighborhood: I saw them dancing and kissing each other. One was wearing a dress and your Daddy was kissing him on the lips. Your Daddy is sick and so are you.
Outing somone as gay has probably been with humankind since the first man loved a man, or a woman loved a woman, or a person was trying to figure out how what they felt fit into the binary world. Mavis was outing Billy’s Daddy in the cruelest sort of way. She danced as she ridiculed Billy as if parading a captured prisoner to the electric chair. Triumphantly, punching the air with both fists, laughingly digging the dagger into an innocent boy’s heart.
Me to Billy: it’s not true. She’s a liar. Don’t you believe it Billy. Everyone knows she is crazy. Your Daddy is a good man. He is nice to everyone.
Mavis heard what I said and rushed up into my face, but she saw a face on me that she had never seen before. I was shaking but so angry that she saw I was coming after her. She took off running and I chased her to her home’s stoop and stayed outside her door until Mavis’ mother came to the porch to find out what was going.
Tears were running down my face. I told Mavis’ mother what Mavis had done. Her face exploded at anger and she turned back into her house and I heard a parent beating a daughter like I had never heard before. Mavis’ screams could be heard throughout Smith Place. Her wailing scared me so that I ran back to my home, only to see Billy’s Daddy comforting him as Billy cried in the way I would cry when they told me my Pop had died.
Me to Billy’s Daddy: I told Billy she is a liar. I told him it is not true. Don’t cry Billy. It’s not true.
Billy’s Daddy to me: Don’t say anymore. This belongs to Billy and me. I just want you kids to leave him alone.
Billy’s Daddy had to hoist him into his arms and carry him because Billy could not stand or walk. I could not really see Billy in his father’s arms because his Daddy was holding him so close, as if his son were dying and these last moments belonged to just them.
Later that evening I saw Mavis’ mother come to the men’s home with a pie. When he came to the door they spoke for a bit and then they both held each other and cried. I heard this from Mavis’ mother: she won’t bother you no more. Tell your boy we are sorry for any hurt she caused. I will pray for you and your son, and I am praying for my daughter the best I can. The man took the pie into his home and Mavis’ mother walked home with her shoulders stooped as if she had just lifted a very heavy stone.
We did not see Mavis for several weeks. We heard she was grounded and that women from her mother’s church were taking Mavis to a revival to help get the devil out of her. And when Mavis did come back out into the block, she was different: quieter, running scared. I wondered if Mavis had seen the devil. And I thought about how hard it must be to get the devil out your heart.
I was not innocent in all this. I knew I had done wrong. But I could not confess the sins I committed. I kept them close to my heart. It was too important to me that I never help somone hurt someone so badly ever again.
Billy would come back to Smith Place once more. He came only for a short time. His Daddy parked the car in front of their home, but Billy stayed inside the car while his father rushed into the house and back to the car. Billy waved to me and that is how we said good-bye. I would never saw him again, but that was all right. Smith Place had already caused enough harm.